The one-hour train ride into the city gives me ample time to read each morning. As I was thumbing through the newspaper today, I came across a story that made me think to myself, “WTF?” or, “wow, that’s fascinating.” (What did you think I meant?)

The story reported on a federal grant of about $713,000 that was received by a Northwestern University researcher who will use the windfall to create a joke-telling machine as part of an experiment in artificial intelligence. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the project’s goal is to create a platform that would generate information automatically without the user asking for it, in the process making today’s search engines obsolete.

The project was cited in a report released last month by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that identified the 100 stimulus projects that they believe to be the biggest wastes of taxpayer money. I skimmed through the report this morning, and it is difficult to take issue with their findings. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte received more than $750,000 to create dance-choreography software.
  • The U.S. Forest Service spent more than $554,000 to replace windows at the visitors’ center at Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington — a facility that has been closed for three years. Apparently the idea is that it will be turned into a lodge or something of the kind one day.
  • The National Park Service is spending $13.3 million to repair a facility in Key West, Fla., that is 70 miles offshore — it’s actually closer to Cuba than the U.S. mainland, according to the report — and accessible only by boat or plane. It attracted only 52,000 visitors last year, making it number three on the list of least visited national parks in 2009.
  • A professor at Georgia Tech University received a grant of roughly $762,000 to jam with “world-renowned” jazz musicians. The idea apparently is that by sitting in on their sessions, the assistant music professor will gain a better understanding of how the pros operate, which is vital information that he can pass along to students. A secondary goal, according to the grant application cited in the Coburn/McCain report, is to “hopefully also create satisfying works of art.”
  • A foundation is to receive nearly a half million dollars to provide smartphones to people wishing to quit smoking so that they can call or text their support groups when they feel the urge to light up.
  • Researchers at the Southwestern Research Institute and at the University of California at Berkeley were awarded grants of roughly $300,000 and $457,000, respectively, to study weather patterns on Venus and the atmosphere on Neptune.

Without question, governments at the federal, state and local levels always have thrown money down the drain, and they’re going to continue to do so. But the instances listed above and the others that are contained in the report — which is very interesting reading, by the way — seem particularly egregious in an economic climate as challenging as the one in which the country still is mired, especially when one contemplates all of the public-safety communications projects across the country that can’t be moved forward due to a lack of funding.

I suggest that you print out this column the next time you’re told that no money can be found for a vital equipment upgrade, to avoid laying off 911 telecommunicators, or to migrate to next-generation technology that will help first responders do their jobs better and keep them safer. Then, take a marker and write “WTF?” in big red letters at the top. Then, mail it to your representatives in Congress with a note that explains how fascinated you are by their ability to find money for the frivolous while serious needs go lacking. Close your note by asking “where’s the funding” for public-safety communications, which are far more important to America than knowing how clouds form in the Neptunian atmosphere.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.